Minnesota Vikings: Managing Aging Veterans

It has been well-documented that the Minnesota Vikings are in a sticky spot coming off a fruitful 2022 season. A large part of the puzzle is the Vikings’ limited cap space. According to Over The Cap, the franchise has the third worst cap situation in the league, exceeding the salary cap by $23.4 million. To get under the cap, there have been a lot of rumors swirling around about cutting certain longtime Viking veterans that are past their prime. As a Vikings fan, it is tough to imagine cutting or trading these players, but it is time to look to the future. It is time to consider whether these guys provide as much value to the team as their salaries indicate.

Adam Thielen
Starting with one of my favorites, Mr. Mankato, Thielen is suddenly 32 years old and five years removed from his last thousand-yard season. Thielen’s current $16 million-a-year salary is far too much for a player that can barely solidify himself as a top 3 option in the offense. K.J. Osborn, who is on a 4-year $3.5 million contract, finished with 66 fewer yards than Thielen even though Osborn was on the field for 169 fewer plays than Thielen. Osborn challenged Thielen for the second wide receiver spot all season and offers the Vikings far more value on his contract. Osborn is only 25 years old and has the speed and athleticism to turn into a reliable number two behind Jefferson.

Thielen commented on his future with the team, indicating that he will play in 2023 and has plenty left in the tank. It seems like Thielen may be prepared to play for another team next season, though he also stated that he would prefer to remain a Viking. To stay with the Vikings, it seems as though he made have to take a pay cut. His willingness to do so remains unclear. Cutting him would also save a substantial amount in cap space, however, the front office and fans alike would rather keep the Minnesota native.

Harrison Smith
The longest-tenured Viking, Harrison Smith, is in a very interesting spot with his contract. The six-time Pro Bowler is one year into a 4-year $64 million extension that he signed before the 2021 season. Baked into his contract is an option to opt-out, with limited dead money issues, after two years (this offseason). The Vikings have a huge decision to make regarding Smith who has been the signature piece of elite defenses over the past 11 years. If the Vikings do not opt-out or trade him now, his cap hit will only increase through the last year of his contract in 2025 when he will be 36 years old.

Over the past couple of years, Harrison Smith has not shown many signs of slowing down. However, in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus, Smith was ranked 21st among safeties in the NFL based on performance. While Smith is certainly a huge leader for this team, it may be beneficial for the team to opt out of his contract and try to sign him to one that is team-friendly. Otherwise, he may be a trade candidate to garner more draft capital or a cut candidate, unfortunately. Safety is a position that does not typically have a ton of longevity and with Lewis Cine behind Smith, it may be time to move on from a Viking great.

Eric Kendricks
Eric Kendricks is another player that has spent his whole career with the Vikings but could have played his last game in purple. Kendricks has been another key of some of the Vikings’ most dominant defenses over his first eight years in the league. However, his play has declined significantly from his 2019 All-Pro season. While he can be a valuable piece in stopping the run and making tackles all over the field, he struggles in pass defense. The UCLA product has one year left on his deal, however, if the Vikings cut him they can save nearly $10 million in cap space.

Restructuring his contract would be the preferred move for the team since the team is short on young linebackers. Kendricks’ absence might create more problems than it would solve unless Adofo-Mensah has his eye on an NFL-ready linebacker to target through the draft. Even then, the team should aim to retain Kendricks so the rookie can learn behind Kendricks for a year until the rookie is ready to start.

This list could easily go on with players like Patrick Peterson, Za’Darius Smith, and Jordan Hicks all in precarious contract positions as well. With Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson in line for big paydays, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell are going to have some difficult personnel decisions to make this offseason. The defense in 2023 will have a completely different look unless a lot of veterans agree to restructure their contracts. Although, new blood could be exactly what this defense needs to make a jump in 2023 and it already started with new defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Some of the moves made this offseason regarding personnel could ruffle some feathers for fans. Getting rid of longtime Vikings is never fun to see, but it might be what the team needs to find the postseason again in 2023.
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